By Sally Tresh*
Featured Visual: Boyat and female pop kitsch in ‘Wa Wa Complex’ by artists Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid Al Gharaballi, 2011. A series of Kuwaiti couple portraits exploring the relationship between the overt imagery of today’s Arab pop female icons and the covert imagery of Arab lesbianism.
The second I stepped into the city, it felt like déjà vu. It felt like somewhere I had grown up, and fair enough it was. The heat was scorching, and the sun faded by dust instead of clouds. It seemed to me like I have made a pit-stop back to my childhood, and that feeling, strangely, of home, and it was instantly intoxicating. I had stepped back into the gulf. At long last I was in Kuwait city.
I was in Kuwait on business, but to say the city had caught me off guard is an understatement. The shadows beckoned me and for curiosity I followed it. Slowly the shadows gave way to light, and the bright color of Kuwait began to emerge.
The gate keeper to this wondrous underworld was a friend of mine, Tamer*. Tall and toned, with kind eyes, and striking features, it was not an over statement to say people stopped and stared. He would lead me through most of my little adventures here.
Down the rabbit hole
The third night for me in the city I was invited to what was then called “A birthday gathering”. I was told to expect a driver to come and pick me up around 9pm, and so he did. He drove through the highways, and arrived at a little house just in one of the middle class neighborhoods. I got off the car; bid him goodbye and he drove off, leaving me in the drive way of a strange house. The door opened revealing my ridiculously handsome friend, beaming. “C’mon in, the party is about to start.”
He was visibly more relaxed than when I’ve seen him last, he seemed in his element. I pecked him on the cheek, and walked into the open door. It was a little apartment, cozy and carefully decorated. Expect for the loaner chairs it seemed simplistic.
“This is Kamel*, it’s his birthday today.” My friend introduced me to a young man, decidedly of gulf descent. I shook his hand and thanked him for the invite. In the meanwhile the room began to fill up, and alcohol began pouring, and the night one way or another ended. It was surreal, so unlike the Kuwait I imagined.
In the days to come, my friend and I bonded, and started spending more and more time together. Until one night, while discussing my intent of writing this article, he came out to me, and I came out to him. We sat there for a moment content with comfort and normality, just goofily smiling at each other. We had become family.
“Of course I miss home” he would later tell me. “But I’m freer to be myself here.” He lived with his partner, who is a young Kuwaiti, for 2 years. They shared a home, a life, they were happy. That was something he felt he couldn’t get back home in Jordan. “There are always people watching. Everything goes back to family.”
“It’s not that I’m afraid” he replied when I asked if he would be afraid to be out in Amman. “I just find it unnecessary to put it out there, it isn’t just who I am. I don’t run around outing myself to people here, but I feel like it would be harder to keep it under wraps back home.”
Welcome the underworld
“It’s easy for us to hide in plain sight here.” he continued “Men are very close to each other physically here.” And he was right. It was a rather common to see men holding hands, and being very affectionate with each other here, even in the most of the public places like the mall.
“They also have ‘Diwaneya’ where men spend long nights together. It’s easy to say you’re staying at a Diwaneya all night with friends, it would not be a problem.”
With women, it was also easy. Women were expected to very good friends with each other. The idea that best friends are in essence soul mates was very ingrained in the culture.
In fact, an incognito relationship was very easy to carry out in Kuwait, even more so than in Levant countries like Jordan. No one asked any questions, and no one seemed to find anything suspicious. If they did, no one was talking.
The Flip side
Even though it would seem that leading an undercover life seemed more than comfortable here, there seems to be another side to it. “Men and women are expected to get married. There is no argument here.” My friend explained. “That’s what Kuwaiti LGBT have to deal with, leading separate lives.”
Another friend of mind Sami*, raises a different point. “At the end of the day we are foreigners here, so what we do doesn’t matter to the locals” His argument is, just like locals in Jordan, don’t seem to care much for the sexual orientation of foreigners, neither did the Kuwaitis. “At the end of the day, we are expected to leave. We really aren’t part of their society, so they think what they do doesn’t affect us.”
“I miss my sisters every day.” Tamer* would say wistfully. “But I can’t be who I am back home. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“I grew up here” Sami* told me. “But it still doesn’t feel like home. Home was in London with my partner, that was my home.” An aspiring musician, Sami* still dreams of the day he leaves the Arab world. “I don’t feel I’m appreciated, or understood for that matter. I want to go back to London.”
I left Kuwait, and came back home, where I’m not really outted. Somehow, the trip left a bad taste in my mouth. Not to say that the city was bad, it wasn’t. It was really a pleasant surprise. It seemed like a small little haven for a lot of the people that I knew and loved, but in many ways it also seemed tainted. At the end of the day it seemed that we are all destined to little freedoms and big sacrifices, for which we have to be ready.
*Names have been changed